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Taking God Seriously In Life And In The Sacred Liturgy

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By JAMES MONTI

The concept of a sense of the sacred both within the liturgy and outside it embraces several closely interrelated dispositions — reverence and solemnity are two of which we have already spoken in previous essays.
A third that warrants our attention is the disposition of “seriousness,” the perception of that which is so important that it must be treated with circumspection, sobriety, attentiveness, discretion, care, and reserve — a matter that cannot and should not be trivialized, banalized, or profaned. Seriousness is a face-to-face confrontation with reality, in particular the realities that touch upon our eternal destiny.
We inhabit a culture that scarcely knows how to be serious anymore. In her 2016 paper “Contemplative Sorrow and the Culture of Life,” the philosophy scholar Dr. Margaret Hughes cites as a symptom of this mentality the fact that a pop song proclaiming both life and death to be nothing more than one big joke was the most widely selected musical piece for funerals in England (“Contemplative Sorrow and the Culture of Life,” in Life and Learning XXVI: Proceedings of the Twenty-Sixth University Faculty for Life Conference at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2016, ed. Fr. Joseph Koterski, SJ, Bronx, NY, University Faculty for Life, 2016, p. 181).
Young people are being intoxicated with music and other forms of entertainment that deny reality, that imprison them in the delusions of false and spiritually lethal pleasures, accompanied by a barrage of tasteless humor crafted to keep them from seeing anything above and beyond these transitory chimeras.
It is because of this that when faced with tragedies — a grave illness or death of a loved one or even the prospect of their own — they are totally unprepared.
The Roman soldiers’ way of dealing with Christ, of steeling themselves against Him and His teachings, was by mocking Him, by making a joke of Him. It was thus that they resisted the seriousness of Christ. For the seriousness of Christ makes those who do not want to change their lives very uncomfortable.
There is a correlation between seriousness and truth. For absolute truths require a serious response of assent. But in a culture such as ours deformed by rampant relativism, with absolute truths declared to be unknowable or uncertain, almost nothing is taken seriously. All too many modern Scripture scholars of the “higher criticism” variety have fostered a biblical relativism that has undercut the certainty of the Word of God, creating the impression that the Sacred Scriptures are little more than a “nice” collection of edifying fables and sayings.
It is our duty and our calling to take God seriously, to take His words and His Commandments seriously, to take His Church seriously. To do so, we must bear in mind who God is, who we are, and where we are going. Each human life is an epic drama, a battle for a man or woman’s soul fought against the backdrop of salvation history.
Our postmodern world would have us believe, as the villainous Shakespeare character Macbeth did, that life is nothing more than “a tale/Told by an idiot…. / Signifying nothing” (Macbeth, act 5, scene 5).
But life does have a definite and serious purpose imparted by God. In his philosophical classic Christian Ethics, Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977) observes, “A new seriousness, a new realistic character, a breath of eternity pervades the moral order in which the great drama of human existence displays itself coram Deo, in the confrontation with God” (Dietrich von Hildebrand, Christian Ethics, New York, David McKay Co., 1953, p. 460).
While the evangelists record our Lord in a quite wide variety of social settings, from meals and personal conversations to huge outdoor events, settings that are quite human, and not without moments of both tenderness and gentle humor, in all these circumstances we never see Christ engaged in wild frivolity.
In all His words and actions there is always an undercurrent of seriousness, of deep and profound purpose, of keeping the eyes fixed upon concerns that are spiritually a matter of life and death. This seriousness is likewise to be seen in the examples of the saints:
“To be sure, the saints always avoid behaving in a loose or free or easy way. On every occasion their bearing reveals them to be a ‘property’ of Christ,’ shaped and contained by His holy law. . . . ‘Sacral’ reserve . . . means setting ourselves at a distance from the world” (Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ: On the Christian Attitude of Mind, New York, Longmans, Green and Co., 1948, pp. 227-228).
God has bestowed upon man the capacity to transcend himself and ascend to “a consciously experienced ‘dialogue with’ God” (Von Hildebrand, Christian Ethics, p. 221). This dialogue finds its supreme expression in the sacred liturgy. The liturgy is inherently serious, for it directs our inward gaze “toward the great things that are eternally and invariably important” (Dietrich von Hildebrand, Liturgy and Personality, Manchester, NH, Sophia Institute Press, 1986, p. 99).
What is serious inhabits a higher plateau. To turn to what is serious, we must put aside and turn away from what is trivial, from whatever distracts us from the attention that seriousness demands. What is serious often requires time and effort for thought and reflection. Often it requires preparation, and demands silence, an inward silence and frequently an outward silence as well.
All these dispositions are necessary for a fully fruitful celebration of the sacred liturgy, and a fully fruitful participation in it.
When a priest is going to celebrate Mass, the Church has him put on sacred vestments, communicating to him the message that he is stepping out of what is ordinary into a sacred realm, and that he will be entering the Holy of Holies. He is entering upon what is most serious in life, and his thoughts and actions during the Mass must be cast in this light. The laity too, as participants in the liturgy, also need to make a comparable transition to the sacred in their thoughts and actions when they attend Mass.
The era of the 1960s was marked by a deep and aggressive hostility to the supernatural. Some within the Church allowed themselves to be intimidated by this secularistic culture to the point of believing that the Church should make her peace with it by bringing some of the manifestations of pop culture into the sanctuary.
Since the 1960s there have been recurrent efforts to produce supposedly “youth-oriented” liturgies, rationalized as an attempt to meet young people on their own terms. In many parishes, a casual, “recreational” approach to the liturgy set in, an approach that purposefully excluded seriousness, with traditional crucifixes, Gregorian chant, dark-colored vestments and incense rejected as too gloomy, too serious for the new “happy” style of Catholic worship.
Yet the pop culture approach to the liturgy is inherently flawed in three ways.
First, there is so much in contemporary pop culture that is diametrically opposed to the faith — the glorification of lust, vulgarity, pride, and selfishness — that invoking its spirit in the liturgy threatens an authentic communication of the Gospel.
Secondly, imitating the pop culture in the liturgy blurs the distinction between sacred worship and recreation. It thus feeds into the modern mentality (so aptly first identified by Dietrich von Hildebrand) that work is the only serious pursuit in life and that everything else is a matter of recreation and relaxation (Von Hildebrand, “Efficiency and Holiness,” in The New Tower of Babel: Essays, Burns and Oates, London, 1954, pp. 220-221).
This, I believe, explains at least in part the phenomenon of people coming to church on Sundays in sports clothes or beach clothes. And indeed, the pop culture approach to the sacred liturgy almost explicitly invites people to “come as they are,” in the casual clothes they would wear to a rock concert.
As Von Hildebrand observes, “Nothing could better obstruct the confrontation of man with God than the notion that ‘we go unto the altar of God’ as we would go to a pleasant, relaxing social gathering” (Von Hildebrand, “The Case for the Latin Mass,” Triumph, volume 1, n. 2, October 1966, Internet version accessed from the Internet Archive — archive.org).
Addressing this same issue, Pope Benedict XVI observed, “The Sunday liturgy . . . will come off badly if it wants to enter the competition of show business,” for “A pastor is not an emcee, and the liturgy is not a variety show” (“Weekend Culture and the Christian Sunday,” in Joseph Ratzinger: Theology of the Liturgy: The Sacramental Foundation of Christian Existence, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2014, p. 206).
Thirdly, the assumption that the pop culture style of worship is necessary because the only way to reach young people is to “meet them where they are” virtually denies man’s capability to transcend himself, to rise above himself, in his encounter with God. Moreover, a craven conformity to pop culture will never satisfy the highest aspirations of the human heart.
Our Lord’s parable of the king who invites his people to his son’s wedding feast (Matt. 22:2-14) is very instructive in this regard. The parable unfolds as a two-part narrative, beginning with a number of those invited making light of it and choosing not to come for a variety of trivial reasons (Matt. 22:5).
In the second part of the parable the king discovers among those who have come to the wedding feast a man improperly dressed for this solemn occasion (Matt. 22:11-14).
In both cases the king responds with great wrath, for in both cases he encounters individuals who have not taken him and his son’s wedding seriously. Those who disregard the king’s invitation treat the wedding as less important than their own trivial pursuits and the man who does come treats it as unimportant by dressing casually, recreationally. They are all guilty of the same attitude of not taking the king’s invitation seriously.

St. Francis Of Assisi

A serious disposition requires us to give God fitting worship, and to recognize the deeper meaning of the everyday events in our lives, to perceive the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) of what God is saying to us through these events.
Who can calculate just how deeply human history has been changed for the better by the decision of a young man of Assisi named Francis to turn away from his superficial world of frivolous pursuits to perceive and respond to the seriousness of Christ?

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